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Review: Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K

If you're currently dealing with a two-piece system with an external recorder, or looking at a DSLR solution but find long-GoP MPEG recording to be too heavy-handed with the compression, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K deserves your attention.

I was impressed with the audio features in the P4K (Figure 6, below). DSLRs limit you to internal or external mics. The P4K lets you plug in an external 1/8" mic and still make use of one of the internal microphones for the second channel. You can pick line or mic level from the 1/8", or the single XLR input. I found the levels a little low in camera compared to what I’m used to, but BMD was already on it and the 6.1 update improved audio performance.

Figure 6. Audio features

The battery is another shortfall of the P4K. The grip could have been made big enough to leverage a larger battery (Figure 7, below). The LP-E6 comes out of the grip quite warm, meaning it's barely able to keep up with the amperage being sucked out of it. The LP-E6 was designed for a still camera, not for a continuous-draw 4K camcorder.

Figure 7. No room for a larger battery in the camera grip

The bottom door is designed to be removed, however, and this enables users to leverage external power with a dummy battery. You can also use the DC input on the side.

The Images

Image-wise, the P4K delivers. I used it on one of my regular corporate shoots where I am doing 20-30 setups in an hour. I don’t have the time to make every shot perfect, nor do I have a lot of time to check and double-check exposure, so I rely on the camera to nail focus and deliver video I can push and pull a bit in post. I shot "Film" and applied the "Film to Expanded Video" in post. Add a bit more color and contrast, depending on the shot, and I was there--with no MPEG artifacts marring the image.

One surprise was the fact that, even using Lumix M43 lenses, there was no image correction performed in camera. I'm used to my Lumix camera providing a tack sharp and perfect parallax image from my Lumix lenses. But the P4K did not perform those corrections in camera. I was not recording RAW, so I expected in-camera correction.

Some lenses have more distortion than others, so it's something to be aware of going in. I had expected that any manufacturer that's part of the Micro 4/3 consortium to have access to lens correction data and apply it in camera--like JVC. But that's not the case here. So a little post correction and sharpen is in order. You can also find some chromatic aberration in cheaper lenses.

But the auto focus and image stabilization worked like they should and that made the quick shoot happen without too much operational differences compared to when I use a DSLR.

In post, the images had sort of a lush look to them. This probably due, in part, to less sharpening, but the "noise" was more like film grain and there were no compression artifacts to deal with when I used ProRes LT. I did one whole shoot on a single CFast card, with SDXC as my backup for overflow. I was very happy with the deliverable and afterward I pushed the in-camera sharpening up a little higher for the next time.

It was also very convenient to use the large screen indoors. Atomos started with 5" screen external recorders, and now that's exactly what we have, with an integrated camera. I was happy to not have to have my 7" external monitor/recorder on top of my DSLR.

I did quickly burn through the single battery provided, but I brought along an external battery solution that I used to finish the shoot (Figure 8, below). More cumbersome, for sure, and, again, I was trying to avoid adding external pieces. Maybe there'll be a Mark II version with a bigger grip that takes a bigger battery. Or maybe a bottom battery grip that holds two NP-F 550 batteries.

Figure 8. The external battery rig I used for the shoot

The recent 6.1 update does improve battery life, and I might have made it through the quick shoot that way, but I'm very used to the confidence I have with the multi-hour battery life in my GH4. I'd always be worried about the battery if, even with a brand-new battery, you're only talking about an hour or less run time.

Conclusion

Aside from the minor points I mentioned, the P4K delivers. It's a little bulkier than a DSLR, but considerably less bulk than a DSLR + an external monitor/recorder. The recent 6.1 updated addressed many of the current issues, and a future update portends to bring Blackmagic RAW to the P4K. I daresay there's no other compact device, especially at this price point, that offers this level of integration and features that enable users to "focus" on making great video.

I look forward to future firmware updates addressing more user issues and making it even more fluid and usable in the future.

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